An unexpected treat: Romulea columnae

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I have often observed, to myself, that the Canary Islands are relatively poor in bulbs. I may be wrong and I only ever go in January but, apart from a couple of scillas, asphodelus, pancratium and dipcadi, I have never seen any bulbs of interest. So it was with great delight, while looking in leaf litter at the edge of Pinus canariensis near Montana de los Monjas to the southwest of the centre of Gran Canaria at an altitude of about 1000m, that I saw some purple specks in the pine needles and grass.

Somehow I immediately knew it was a romulea, a genus that I associate with South Africa more than anywhere else. But, although that may be the centre of the genus, it spreads into Africa north to Europe and, on checking, it is found in the Canaries. Romuleas can have large and bright flowers with intricate markings but the European species are a bit less spectacular. Romulea bulbocodium is a Mediterranean species that breaks the rule because it has some of the largest flowers of all, even though they are rather simple with pink petals and a yellow centre.

But the species I found was hardly spectacular, with flowers only about 1cm across, but their bright colour did make them look like little gems.

The ground was fairly bare with a few annuals in the dappled shade, mostly in areas facing south.

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Romuleas are related to crocus and look very similar but the big difference is that crocus flowers are stemless, growing directly from the corm. Though the flowers are held above the ground on a long perianth tube, there is no green stem (scape). The leaves are also different and romuleas do not have the white grove in the centre of their leaves. Romuleas hold their flowers on a green scape of various lengths and in Romulea columnae this can be up to 20cm high. The species is found throughout Europe (including the UK where it is found in south Devon and the Channel Isles) but, as far as I can ascertain, in the Canaries it is represented by Romulea columnae ssp. grandiscapa which is distinct by the flower colour I think and all the plants I saw were a bright lavender or lilac rather than the paler shades more typical of the species.

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While it is not a plant to set the world alight, I was glad to see it and, if available, might make an interesting plant for outside in Britain and Ireland in a sunny, well drained spot.


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2 Comments on “An unexpected treat: Romulea columnae”

  1. Noelle
    February 4, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    I love to walk out into ‘uncultivated’ parts whilst on holiday and just see what is growing….even one little gem spotted growing wild brings a thrill! My father was a great plant collector and introduced several plants from Africa to Mauritius.

    • thebikinggardener
      February 6, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

      That is interesting about your father – what did he introduce? And yes, just a flash of colour in the wild is exciting to find

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